MANHATTAN (CN) – Studies remain elusive on the data-driven style of prosecution embraced by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office these last five years, but not for lack of attention drawn by DA Cyrus Vance.
The Fifth Annual Concordia Conference brought Vance uptown Friday to discuss the arrest-alert system that pings his office whenever police nab their most-wanted gang members, identity thieves and cybercriminals.
Now in its fifth year, the Crime Strategies Unit carves five areas of Manhattan to help Vance’s office prioritize the roughly 100,000 cases its sees every year.
Though Vance has been pitching the program in dozens of speeches, press releases and conferences, it received little coverage before a New York Times noted the “unusual collaboration” it fostered between prosecutors and police.
As he has in the past, Vance compared his prosecutorial strategy to “Moneyball,” the book-turned-Hollywood sports drama in which innovative statistical analysis helps the Oakland Athletics recruit underappreciated players to make a competitive team.
“We want to get the most bang for our buck,” Vance said.
The program’s roots stretch far past this Brad Pitt blockbuster, however, with Vance tracing its inspiration to Bill Bratton’s first tenure as New York City police commissioner.
When first appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Bratton became known as one of the architects of “broken-windows” theory of policing. Its adherents believed that run-down buildings, litter-strewn streets, graffiti-sprayed walls and homeless “squeegee men” invited violent crime by signaling a neighborhood’s abandonment.
New York City experienced a dramatic drop in crime around the time Bratton clamped down on these minor offenses, but social scientists have long been skeptical of the cause and effect. Crime sharply plummeted across the United States during the same period of the early 1990s, even in major cities like San Diego, Washington, St. Louis and Houston that did not apply “broken-windows” strategies.
Vance emphasized that his program differs from broken windows by focusing on violent crime.
“It’s a different way of approaching violent crime: How to identify it, how to attack it, and making sure that people who are serious offenders wouldn’t slip off our radar,” he said in an interview after the panel ended.
What the squeegee man was to broken-windows policing, a street hustler named Naim Jabbar is to Vance’s Crime Strategies Unit.
Before landing in an upstate prison, Jabbar ran a scam where he jostled unsuspecting pedestrians, claimed that they broke his glasses, and then intimidated them until they paid him between $40 and $100 to replace his cheap specs.
With more than 40 arrests under his belt, Jabbar stacked up 19 convictions for fraudulent accosting.
The misdemeanor would only send Jabbar to jail for a few months, but Vance’s arrest alert system has caused the man to face far heavier charges of robbery in the fourth degree and grand larceny. Prosecutors cited Jabbar’s imposing stature to prove that the 250-pound man standing more than 6-foot tall “forcibly” stole money, more than $1,000 over the years, from his marks.
Vance called Jabbar his own “hot spot,” police jargon for a high-crime area in a precinct.
“He is a walking hot spot, and he needs to be identified if he comes up in the system,” he said.
An imperfect poster-child for the unit, however, Jabbar started plying his trade again shortly after his first felony conviction five years ago. A robbery charge for which Jabbar was convicted this spring could keep him away for a maximum 7.5 years.
Hot-spot policing also faced criticism in the wake of the landmark stop-and-frisk case, Floyd v. City of New York.
Though a federal judge found that stop and frisk relied on illegal racial profiling, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the program by arguing that police targeted minority neighborhoods because that is where the crime was.
Bloomberg’s successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, dropped the city’s appeal of the ruling to repair relations with black and Latino neighborhoods.
Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Fagan, the lead researcher in the Floyd case, said in an email interview that “hot-spot” prosecution runs the same risks as its policing equivalent.
Fagan emphasized that he has not studied the Crime Strategies Unit but observed that “using place as a factor in charging seems like simply substituting place for race due to patterns of segregation.”
A spokeswoman for New York Civil Liberties Union also said that the organization has not been tracking the new Manhattan prosecution unit, demonstrating how little attention it has received from rights groups.
Vance agreed that there was a risk that “hot spot” would primarily include black and Latino neighborhoods, but he argued this was statistically inevitable.
Public-housing developments are home to 5 percent of the city population yet “more than 20 percent” the city’s violent crime, Vance said.
Inviting scrutiny on the issue, Vance solicited the nonprofit Vera Institute to study how his office handled race for more than two years. The organization’s July 2014 report found that blacks were 13 percent more likely and Latinos 5 percent more likely than whites to receive jail sentence. This discrepancy more than doubled when it came to drug offenses.
Despite finding the results lamentable, The New York Times praised Vance in an editorial for inviting the harsh spotlight on himself.
During his panel discussion, Vance called Vera’s study helpful for teaching prosecutors to root out “implicit bias” in their charging decisions.
Vance agreed in theory that his new prosecution model could be used for white-collar crime, but he said that it was unlikely that his new unit would treat Wall Street as a “hot spot.”
“The complexity of the investigations in economic crime and the duration of them make it less appropriate, I think, for the crime-strategy analysis,” he said.
Grand larcenies and identity theft are ideal for the unit because these crimes “fit into a small group of people locally who are working in a very particular geography and hitting a series of stores with phony credits and other information.”
Vance tailored his message during the panel to resonate with the organizers of the Concordia summit, who use the institutional jargon “P3” to describe the partnerships between the public and private sectors.
While each summit tackles a variety of topics from human trafficking, food security, and foreign relations from Latin America to the Middle East, the speakers tend to espouse similar boardroom-friendly solutions ranging from corporate sponsorship to big-data analysis.
For the audience gathered inside the Hyatt Hotel near Grand Central Station on Friday, Vance emphasized that “law enforcement is a business.”
“It’s an institutional business,” he continued. “It’s a municipal agency, and of course, we have to collect data being brought to us all the time by police officers and others. So, the information coming in, it has to be collected. It has to be organized. It has to be assimilated.”
Vance said his Crime Strategies Unit drew inspiration from CompStat, a type of computer modeling for police that started in New York under Bratton’s first term.
Just as CompStat has been replicated in dozens of cities across the globe, systems like Vance’s are in the works from Baltimore to San Francisco, Vance told the panel.
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